Published: 06/06/2014 16:09 - Updated: 06/06/2014 16:23

Butterfly Hye-Youn Lee wants to spread her wings

Hye-Youn Lee as Madama Butterfly.
Hye-Youn Lee as Madama Butterfly.

AS soprano Hye-Youn Lee acknowledges, when it comes to playing the doomed heroine of Madama Butterfly, she is "visually perfect" for the role.

Which is why we are very lucky to see the South Korean singer appear as the betrayed and abandoned Cio-Cio San at Eden Court next week.

Lee, who now lives in London, first played Butterfly in 2010 for Grange Park Opera and since then has been asked by several other opera companies to return to the role again.

"But I said no because I want to play other roles, not just Madame Butterfly," she said.

She made an exception for Scottish Opera’s revival of Sir David McVicar’s 2000 production.

"It’s a really good opera and the conductor, Marco Guidarini, is great and I’ve worked with this production’s director Elaine Kidd before," Lee explained.

"I don’t want to end up doing Madama Butterfly over and over again. You can’t keep dying every two days in a row! Emotionally it’s very demanding."

It is also demanding vocally.

"The music is very, very macho — big orchestrations — and my voice is not that big," Lee said.

"I’m also trying to convince the audience that I’m a 15 year old geisha and in the second act I have to become more mature and womanly."

Cho-Cho San/Butterfly falls in love with and marries the faithless Lieutenant Pinkerton (José Ferrero), part of the American delegation to Imperial Japan. Pinkerton soon abandons his young wife, not knowing she is expecting his child, and three years later returns to the city of Nagasaki with his new American bride, setting up the final tragedy.

"It’s a sad story, but it’s also quite modern because you hear about similar stories every day," Lee said.

"In Korea, after the civil war broke out and the American soldiers came in, you hear those stories all the time."

The Japanese setting is at odds with the more typically open and bolder style of Italian opera performance, and requires a certain amount of getting used to.

"You have to close your body, kneel down the whole time and take small steps and make geisha gestures," Lee explained.

"It’s quite strange, and even though I’m from near Japan and I know how it works, I’ve been living in Europe for 15 years so it is really challenging."

Even if Lee admits to preferring Verdi and Mozart, she it still a great admirer of Puccini.

"I love Puccini’s music. He’s very clever and knows exactly where to put the big moments," she said.

There are quite a few of those big moments in Madama Butterfly and Lee reveals she finds it hard to choose which of the opera’s arias is the most enjoyable to perform.

"They are all great. Sometimes, when I do auditions, I bring along one or two arias to sing. Only two? Why can’t I sing three? Or four?" she laughed.

The audience, however, do seem to have their own favourite from Madama Butterfly in Un bel dì (One Fine Day), one of the best loved arias in the soprano repertoire.

"That’s when I get the applause because they all know it," she said.

With a second appearance as Butterfly under her wing, Lee is also getting to play some of those other roles on her wish list, especially after a national newspaper picked her as one of last year’s Faces To Watch.

"Every soprano wants to play Violetta in La Traviata and I’m very glad I’m going to be able to sing this role in September with Opera North," she revealed.

From London to Leeds is not such a big journey for Lee, but having trained in Berlin, Strasbourg and Paris, she is well used to the international life of an opera star.

"There is a lot of travelling and you have to live for one or two months in a strange place," she said.

"And I’m a mum now with a three-year old boy, so sometimes I have to take him.

"It’s not easy, but I like to meet new people and to learn lots of new stuff and communicate with people."

• Hye-Youn Lee appears in Madama Butterfly at The Empire Theatre, Eden Court on  Saturday 7th June at 7.15pm.

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